He could hear a bell in the distance. He thought he was hearing things at first, but the higher he climbed the clearer it became. It had a clean, pure tone. As well as giving Freddie courage, it seemed to urge him to come closer.
"If I can just make it there..."
Then I'll be okay, he knew.
The peak of the block wall, which had been concealed by mist, revealed itself. A huge, golden bell hung, swaying, in a bell tower there. That was his goal. Several sheep already seemed to have made it there. He could make out the sheep who had called to him amongst them. His rosary glinted silver amidst the white fleece on his chest.
"Just a little further. Take it easy and come up here."
If he slipped now, it was all over. He moved deliberately, one step at a time, until finally he climbed up the last stone block. The summit resembled a balcony, wide enough for two cars to pass each other. Feeling solid ground beneath his feet for the first time in a while, he almost sank to his knees.
"Not yet. It's not over yet."
The sheep pointed. Until then, Freddie hadn't been able to see what lay beyond the wall of blocks he had scaled, but now that he was at the top he could finally see the other side.
An unimaginable scenery lay before him. The stone blocks actually formed a four-sided wall, with a gigantic castle towering at its centre. The fortress, solemn yet dignified, was made of obsidian and reminded him of a mediaeval gothic building. The stone walls had been carved out here and there with skylights set into them, through which seeped an eerie green light. Carvings of beasts, such as gargoyles and dragons, decorated the windows, with deep red rubies set into their eyes. They surveyed the area with a glare, as if on the lookout for any would-be intruders.
Four towers were clustered at the corners of the fortress, creating a direct connection between them by way of passages. Sharp ballistas peered out from bay windows in the towers, refusing to let anything approach.
"This is amazing."
Including the spires, the castle was far taller than even the stone wall, its peak fading high into the red sky, invisible.
"We might be okay if we can take refuge in that castle," the sheep muttered.
"Look." The sheep pointed at a section of space between the block wall and the castle. "You see that bridge over there?"
He couldn't tell at first, but upon narrowing his eyes the image gradually began to take shape. A narrow suspension bridge hung roughly ten yards to his right, joined to the side of the top level of the castle wall. Large, riveted double doors of iron stood on the other side of the bridge, with a gap in the middle just about wide enough for a sheep to squeeze through.
"We can cross that and shelter inside the castle. That's the only way we can survive."
Freddie began running towards it, the sheep taking the lead. The bridge extended for about one hundred yards. With vines serving as ropes and nothing below but wooden planks, it was even more risky-looking than he had imagined. It swayed unsteadily from side to side along with the sound of the block wall collapsing.
Perhaps worried about whether or not it could take their weight, the sheep were crossing one at a time. Hurried by the rosary sheep, Freddie joined the tail of the queue. It felt like forever as he waited for his turn. The block wall had begun to collapse right up to the point just below the summit.
That voice. The accursed woman's voice was gradually getting louder.
"It's your turn. Come on," called the sheep, who had already crossed the bridge, from by the fortress door.
By now, the suspension bridge was rocking wildly like a swing in midair - but there was no other way. Steeling himself, he took a step. The flimsy wooden boards creaked ominously underfoot. Please don't break on me, he prayed silently, clinging onto the vines. He had made it about halfway across, when...
"Freddie... I've found youuuuuu!"
Something tentacle-like suddenly extended from the darkness immediately below. At its tip were five long claws, which were painted with peeling crimson nail polish.
"Don't leave meeeee!"
The claws brushed by Freddie, then came to a stop above him. They came down, carving a parabola in the air. The sharp nails effortlessly tore apart the planks and vines right in front of him. Tiny splinters of wood plummeted into the darkness.
With the vines on one side severed, the bridge leaned heavily. Freddie gripped tightly onto the vines on the other side, somehow managing to straighten himself up, but it didn't last for long. Reaching the limits of its endurance with the mid-section destroyed, planks began to fall from the bridge. The vine ropes that held it up, too, were stretched to their limits, and he could hear their fibres begin to split.
"Run. Run to me!" the sheep yelled from the other side.
He had no time to look back and survey the threat. Entrusting his life to the planks that could fall at any time, he began to sprint. His foot caught on the moist boards, causing him to stumble. Tears automatically sprang to his eyes. Boards he had only just passed over came off and vanished.
The tentacle reappeared, rearing up. He felt a murderous air from behind, but had no way of avoiding it. The wind howled, and he could feel something hurriedly approaching. Three more yards to the fortress gate, two, one...
Pouring the last of his remaining strength into his feet, he jumped. Plunging headfirst to the ground, the eerie tentacle slid past overhead.
A protuberance suddenly stuck out from the castle wall. He grabbed onto the hand of the sheep who had been waiting right by the gate and stood, just as the suspension bridge collapsed and fell.
"That was close..."
His throat was dry as a desert. Even the cold sweat had ceased.
"The others have gone inside. We should join them," the sheep said.
The clawed tentacle that Freddie had so far evaded made an abrupt turn and began to attack.
There was no time to shout a warning. It gripped the pitiful sheep in its huge fingers, dragging him down into the depths of the abyss. Freddie's eyes connected with the sheep's for a split second. Desperation, terror - and regret. Emotions surged through Freddie's mind, threatening to explode.
"Wait just a..."
By the time he had reached out his hand to stop him, the sheep had already vanished into the depths. He gave his life for me? he thought numbly.
"Freddie... Freddieeeee!" came the echo of the woman's voice, realising that she had captured the wrong prey.
Still bewildered, his legs began to move on instinct alone. He passed through the gate, the heavy door shutting behind him, and then he lost consciousness.
Georg was dead.
When he'd got the news from a colleague, Freddie wondered if he was still trapped in a nightmare.
"Why? Why did he die?" he asked in a voice that didn't feel like his own.
"I dunno. They found him cold in his bed."
Holding his phone between his chin and shoulder, pressed against his ear, Freddie looked down at his bed. It was cheap; just a metal frame, mattress and sheets. A blanket lay balled up on top of it, lying there like a piece of rubbish. Had Georg died in a bed like this one? He gently reached for his pillow. It was so cold that he couldn't believe he'd slept on it only the night before.
"What about the funeral?"
"I don't know anything specific. Just come to the office, would you? You're not high up enough to be taking paid vacations."
The hands on the clock had long since passed noon. He was really late. If a worried colleague hadn't told him about Georg, he might still be sleeping now. He announced that he was coming, then hung up the phone.
He washed his face in the bathroom, but still felt horrendous. He had slept for an unbelievably long time, but still felt exhausted. It was because of that weird dream. He couldn't remember much of it, but felt like he'd been in a high up place. He could still faintly hear the sound of a bell. Was it a church bell? He couldn't remember how it sounded. He couldn't help but feel like it had been melancholic, like a funeral bell.
"A funeral, huh..."
His tangled thoughts turned towards Georg's death. Why him? He hadn't said anything about being ill. Even after his recent check-up, despite complaining of back pain there hadn't been anything else out of the ordinary. He did sometimes mystify people with his unique manner of speaking, but he was good at his job after all, and Freddie didn't dislike Georg.
Reality seeped out of the tone of the room, making it appear sepia. It was an irritation to have to go into the office but, thinking that he might be able to find out something new if he did, Freddie dragged himself out of his apartment on heavy legs. In contrast to his room, where it felt as if time had come to a standstill, the clear, blue noon sky was unpleasantly bright. Pain prickled through his head. You have no right to be walking under such a beautiful sky after shutting yourself away in a gloomy world like that, he felt as if he could hear the sun scorning him, and walked with his head down, averting his face from it.
Upon his arrival at the office, despite putting on casual airs, something definitely felt different from usual. Everyone sat facing their monitors as they worked as they normally did, but the atmosphere felt strained. People weren't whispering between each other as much as usual, either.
Daryl looked up from his desk and glanced at Freddie. His hair, from which usually wafted the strong odour of pomade, was unkempt, his eyes sunken behind his glasses.
"I guess you've heard about Georg," he murmured, not even chiding him for his tardiness.
"Yes. It's just so sudden, though, and I... Could you tell me a bit more about what happened?"
"Not here. Let's talk outside."
Daryl led Freddie to an unused meeting room, then slumped down into a folding chair.
"I'm not too sure myself, but his parents say they found him passed away in his bed this morning."
"And what... what was the cause of death?"
"According to the paramedics who showed up, it seems to have been death due to frailty from extreme physical exhaustion."
He didn't understand. Georg had died from weakness? He'd been so lively just yesterday, hadn't he? How could something like this just happen overnight?
"Are you sure?"
"I got another phone call not long ago. The police said that their investigation turned up nothing suspicious. The body will be taken to a teaching hospital to be autopsied, but it doesn't seem like anything will come of it." Daryl unlinked his hands and put them to his face, then shook his head in disbelief.
"How about it being a suicide or something like that, then?"
"Suicide? What makes you think that?"
"Uh, oh. Nothing, really," he said vaguely.
He didn't even understand where it'd come from himself, but suddenly wondered whether maybe he had jumped to his death.
A pain, like being stabbed by a needle, flashed through the inside of his forehead.
sheep sheep sheep.
sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep.
A flock of sheep sinking their teeth into his brain.
He shook his head to drive away the image that accompanied the pain.
"What's wrong? Are you feeling under the weather as well?"
"No. It's nothing."
"I don't mind you going home for today if you're finding this hard. I'm sure they'll contact us and let us know when the funeral is soon. I have no choice but to attend. What about you?"
"I'll be going, of course."
Was it out of politeness? It wasn't like they had known each other for a long time, but Georg had helped him out on many occasions - both in game development, and in other ways, too.
What "other ways"? The naturally surfacing thought bewildered him. He had never helped him outside of work. They'd never even gone out drinking together, and it wasn't like he screwed around with girls. He didn't even know where he lived; nor had they ever talked about his family. There had never been any cause for him to meddle in Georg's private life. Then why?
Fuck. My head hurts.
The stabbing pain in his head worsened, and Freddie gave up on thinking. Daryl had said that it was okay for him to go home but he declined, saying that he wanted to put together a proposal. Sitting around by himself in his apartment would just make him depressed, and he thought that maybe finishing the proposal could even serve as some sort of memorial for Georg.
"Hurry up and write the specification document, would you? Hohoho."
He'd never hear that witch-like old lady voice ever again.
"This desk ended up being Catherine's after all, huh?" he thought to himself suddenly, returning to his own seat and staring at the empty desk next to him.
He realised that Daryl was calling to him. His boss had donned his coat, carrying his bag under his armpit.
"I'm not feeling too well, so I'm going home early. I'm leaving the rest to you."
So that's how things were. The reason why he'd told him in such a carefree manner that he should go home was because he wanted to leave. He had almost reconsidered his opinion and believed that he was in truth a boss who cared about his employees, but Daryl was still Daryl after all.
"Oh, right - would you sort out the things on Georg's desk? We'll need to send them back to his family. Thanks."
"I've told the president that the planning meeting will go ahead as scheduled, too, so make sure there are no oversights. Right, well. Good job."
Fucking Daryl, he thought as he watched his boss hurry out of the office. He wished that he'd fallen instead of Georg. All of a sudden, Freddie staggered hard. Oh, that nonsensical image again. What the hell's going on today?
He opened his desk drawer and fished around inside it. He tipped out his supplements and took out a small bottle of aspirin, shoving three into his mouth at once.
"Maybe I should've gone home, too."
Wondering whether he should go ahead and do it his eyes wandered to his time card, but he thought better of it and decided to sort out Georg's things instead. I'm not like Daryl. I'm going to treat my colleagues with respect.
He pulled out a folded cardboard box that had been tossed under the desk. It had been used when they had moved offices earlier. He'd just put his stuff in there for now. He set up the cardboard box, then began by opening the bottom-most drawer. Books about programming, work-related files, a check-up notification. Separating out the things that looked like personal items from those that didn't, he efficiently packed them into the box.
He continued in order, until he reached the top drawer. That was when he saw it - mixed in with an electric calculator and ballpoint pens, something glittering caught Freddie's eye. Brushing aside small items and taking it out, he saw that it was a silver rosary.
For a moment, his heart stopped. He stared at it, fixated. A rosary. Silver. A bell tower. The sound of a bell. A suspension bridge. Memories of scenes he shouldn't have had surged through his head like a cascade. Falling. A lone sheep. Falling. Two sheep. Falling. Three sheep, four sheep...
Feeling suffocated, he realised that he was holding his breath. He slammed the drawer shut, and stopped time began to move once again.
"Hah... Hah... Hah... Hah..."
Clutching his chest, he forced himself to start breathing again. He leaned against Georg's desk, panting. His whole body was weak. On the surface he was burning hot, but at his core he was freezing cold. In the end Freddie left the rest of the things unsorted, spending the other half of the day unable to do a thing.